Field of dreams

4

Odd moment during the recent announcement and garbled discussion of education reforms in Australia. Chief Minister of the ACT, Katy Gallagher, was asked by parochial reporters, essentially, “what’s in it for Canberra?”

She said, perhaps bemused by the stupid question, that because most if not all Canberra students were already receiving support above what was being proposed, there actually wasn’t anything “in it” for the ACT.

In hunter-gatherer societies all children are educated equally – it would be suicidal for the society to do anything else. Same with the early agricultural societies. In both cases gifted individuals may specialise in particular areas of expertise later, but all will be educated.

We lost this equality of opportunity as the accumulation of wealth by a few created a situation where better education could be purchased, and that has remained the case, and been strengthened, ever since.

Indeed in Australia the Right, themselves, one and all, the products of the best education money could buy, decided they could do better as old boys (or girls) than merely denoting a few tax deductible dollars to the alma mater. They could, they realised, get their name up on the honour roll by getting the people of Australia to pay big bucks to schools already overflowing with swimming pools and polo ponies and acres of rolling playing fields. And they could lock in such payments permanently with a clever mathematical formula which achieved bias while appearing objective. A simple formula, always applied by conservatives, and always effective = The Rich get Richer. Genius eh?

So, it’s time for a reversal of fortunes. A simple formula = To each according to his needs. Identify the poorest public schools, give them more money to build up their resources to the level of the richer public schools. And then, whisper who dare, onwards to the levels of the private schools. Oh, sorry, getting a bit carried away there. Never mind, let’s get all students onto as level a playing field, playing fields, as possible. Cry havoc and let loose the dogs of class war.

But wait, there’s more. The other conservative legacy also affects equality of educational opportunity – religion. Separation of church and state? Yeah, whatever, but separation of church and school just as important. Yet John Howard unleashed the dogs of sectarianism. Loony tunes religious schools proliferated. Students taught curriculums in which garbage like creationism can be included, because religious freedom. “The more religion, the lower the quality of education” – write that on the blackboard 100 times Mr Howard

But worse is that schooling, meant to broaden horizons, introduce new ideas, allow children to mix widely, teach the ability to think and evaluate, to see a world beyond the walls of their home, has been narrowed. Religious fanatics have been allowed to carry out home-schooling in bulk. Allowed to make sure that no child raised in the closed little worlds of religious fundamentalism is allowed to discover that there is another real world outside.

So, equality of opportunity for all students? Absolutely, stuff of dreams. But understand that it involves more than just money. I have a dream of getting all students onto the playing field of secular education.

What’s in it for Australia? Only the next generation.

A, B, C, D… E, F, G…

8

Anyway, that’s another round of chemotherapy almost completed. Neither I nor my Oncologist sure whether the first round achieved much (but had left my Neutrophils worryingly low for the start of a new cycle, so I have to have a new injection this afternoon to deal with that), but we will review again in three weeks. Some unpleasant, and mysterious, body problems this week reminded me yet again that from the moment of first being diagnosed with cancer your mindset changes. You go from being comfortable in your own skin, to being uncomfortable. And you go from happily assuming that any health problems you have are readily explainable, treatable, and short-lived, to being able to assume nothing. Your body goes from being a Known Known to one full of Unknown Unknowns. Simple views about your personal health universe rapidly give way to complex ones.

You are caught, as I said to the Oncologist this week, in the world of the Three S’s. Anything you experience could be a Symptom (of the cancer itself), a Side Effect (of the cancer treatment), or Something Else (totally unrelated to either). Life, they say, wasn’t meant to be easy. Nor, in the case of cancer treatment, is there such a thing as a free lunch, everything comes at a cost.

Anyway, all this reminded me, eating my free lunch of soggy sandwiches in the Oncology chair, machine beeping and dripping (slowly, slowly) on my right, of the debate about education this week in Australia.

The country, in some survey, had apparently ranked way down the list, 25th in this, 26th in that, 27th in the other. Our children were apparently as poorly educated as those of poorly educated countries – couldn’t be misunderestimated, we were misundereducated.

Within moments of the survey appearing on the airwaves and interwebs, as if the barriers had been opened in the Melbourne Cup, those same airwaves and interweb tubes were full of answers from experts and anyone with an opinion (to the extent that they can be considered separate categories). It was the Labor government’s fault, teacher’s fault, a funding problem, lack of attention to the three R’s, not enough rote learning, the result of education not being the same as when the opinionator was educated, school autonomy, phonics, testing programs, private schooling, and so on.

Trouble was, every Opinionperson thought the right answer was THEIR answer. That if there was a problem in education then it was the result of a single cause and had a single solution. Sadly this is the kind of simplemindedness that has resulted in many educational dead ends. When we ask the rarely asked question “is our children learning?”, just like the question “why is my stomach sore?”, we need to be aware that there are no simple answers.

Let’s start at the beginning this time with the actual survey. It was conducted in 2010, a fact that escaped media attention, so that the answer “it’s all the Labor government’s fault” didn’t really ring true. There was no consideration of how the comparisons were made, nor whether they allowed for cultural and socio-economic differences (in just the way you need to with “IQ tests”) between different countries. Nor was any thought given to desirability of high rankings. If a country was doing well because (say) of rote learning of the Three R’s, and rigid discipline in class rooms, is this really the way you want Australia to go?

But even taking the rankings at face value, concentrating on one particular aspect of what goes on in the classroom is begging for a misdiagnosis. As well as the Three R’s we also need to know whether a particular child, or group of children, falling behind in something is the result of a symptom, a side effect, or something else entirely.

Much has changed in Australia since I was a child (to start at a very remote time indeed), all affecting education in some way.

To name just a few relevant factors: The structure of suburbs and travel, play, and social opportunities for children are different; children are exposed to television and radio for hours each day as a primary source of entertainment, knowledge, and values; the values expressed in reality tv and quiz shows, for example, are much changed from my values; children are using computers in various forms for communication, games, learning; diets are much inferior to what they were; right-wing populist politicians and religious leaders have launched an attack on science and education in recent years; and on teachers themselves; and on curricula, with demands for including nonsense like creationism; money has been moved from public schools into private and fundamentalist religious schools; underfunding of preschool and kindergarten and loss of trained staff reduces the early educational possibilities; both parents working reduces the opportunities for learning at home; few homes these days seem to have books or encourage reading; peer pressure tends to put more value on the lowest common denominator of intellectual achievement; teacher are faced with larger class sizes, while at the same time having more bureaucracy to deal with, and demands that they teach more and more topics (driving cars for example, or coping with social media) that someone thinks is important; older teachers are retiring while younger ones have come through much the same social and cultural and educational milieu as their students; “National testing” has put emphasis on “learning for the test”, because schools that don’t do well in it will lose funding and students; some educator will come up with some mad-brained scheme like “phonics” and have some politician impose it on schools …

Enough, you get the idea, and I’m sure you could all add many more. And remember, before you can compare results for different countries, and come up with solutions, you would somehow, have to allow for all those variables being different between the countries.

Look, there is no doubt that Australian education would be a lot better if it followed the model of Finland, always top of these kinds of surveys, rather than America. Put more money into public education (and preschools), value teachers and education, try to get more education support in the home, and so on. But really, to make any improvements in educational performance we also have to seek changes to the way families and society are performing, to look at our media, and our social, cultural, political values, not just the Three R’s.

Easy, eh? Now, if you could just tell me why I have this ache in my shoulder, Doc…

The sphere of private life

40

When theocracy comes back to western civilisation it might begin with three young women protesting in a church and being jailed for two years. Or it will ride in on a wagon outlawing same-sex marriage. Perhaps it will come from small fundamentalist religious schools keeping their students isolated from any other thoughts, including Darwin’s dangerous idea. Or maybe it will come from leaders who pray to an imaginary being for guidance before making decisions on war.

Maybe “witches” being burnt will provide a spark. Or the loud voices demanding that women cover up their bodies, and art work be destroyed which depicts nakedness. Could it be hiding under the cloak of those who called a young Olympic runner a “prostitute”? Or of those who are certain that women must never be allowed to preach to men?

Perhaps it’s coming in that mob of wild-eyed young men brandishing AK 47s in the air and screaming “god is great” in triumph at having slaughtered other young men. Or in the ones screaming abuse about homosexuality at people attending soldier’s funerals. Or in the hands of the ones screaming at young women attending family planning clinics, or blowing them up or shooting “abortion doctors”. Or maybe it’ll be riding in a plane being flown into a tall building, or a truckload of explosives smashing into a girl’s school.

Maybe theocracy will begin on old battlefield sites being labelled as “sacred ground”. Or on pieces of burnt toast with an imaginary face. Or in a row of fence posts imagined as a woman’s figure. Or in the ancient monuments blown up as impure. Or perhaps in those places where gullible sick people are prayed upon and preyed upon by those promising miracle cures in return for a little money.

Its arrival will be speeded up by those determined to smash science. By those who preach the dominion of man over nature. By the tax exemptions for religious institutions. By the prayers at the start of parliamentary sessions. By the growing role of religious cadres in schools, in hospitals, in military memorial ceremonies, in political lobby groups. By the politicians flaunting their religious beliefs as an incentive to vote for them. By the preachers blaming a drought or a tornado on people behaving “sinfully”.

It will come from the children indoctrinated, and sometimes mutilated, at ages far too young to give consent. It will come from cults shielded from scrutiny by threats of legal action, shielded from criticism by laws limiting free speech. Will come from the poor devils refusing medical treatment in favour of prayer. Will come from big businesses with religious fundamentalist owners using their power. Will come from fearful people, made afraid by shock jocks serving political masters. Will come from the deliberate conflating of religion and race by unscrupulous leaders. Will come from words written by deluded people hundreds, thousands of years ago, believed by deluded people now to have come from one imaginary being or another.

It is enabled every time the media calls it a “miracle” when someone is saved by the full application of five centuries of western science and medicine. Every time tv channels run “serious” programs about “psychics” or “near death experiences” or “ghosts”. Every time someone is said to have “passed” instead of died. Every time someone says they will “pray for you to get better” and you don’t say “how about donating to medical research instead?” Every time someone wears a “power band” or a “healing crystal”, or recommends homeopathy.

Brought nearer every time someone says “Oh, those New Atheists, so aggressive and rude, they really should respect the beliefs of religious people”.

The bible will arrive, everywhere, wrapped in the flag and carrying a gun. Theocracy is coming to a country near you, soon, and it will take you back to the Dark Ages. The only thing needed for religion to triumph is for good people to do nothing.

“Things have come to a pretty pass when religion is allowed to invade the sphere of private life” (William Lamb, on hearing an evangelical sermon)

Pastime with good company

16

I recently, and somewhat belatedly, watched the Showtime tv series “The Tudors” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0758790/. Pretty good series, on the whole, and an excellent introduction to the reign of Henry VIII. It should, I reckon, be made compulsory viewing for the following people:
1 those who think religion should play a much bigger role in our society.
2 those who support monarchic/autocratic government
3 those who support laissez faire economics
4 those who think justice should be decided by public opinion not courts
5 those in favour of death penalty
6 those comfortable with huge wealth disparities
7 those against feminism
8 those against public education for all
9 those against science and medicine
10 those who believe in trickle down economics

There, I’m sure you guys can think of other lessons from history as we seemed doomed to repeat it.

One hit wonders

3

Bill Clinton, presidential candidate, famously had pinned to his wall by his campaign manager (the glib James Carville) a sign saying “It’s the economy, stupid”. It was shorthand for “all the voters are interested in is their hip pocket so give them what they want, not any high falutin’ stuff about environment, or arts, or foreign affairs, or infrastructure, or health, or education, Dumbo”. It was instantly adopted as the kind of ageless political advice on stone tablets brought down from the Acropolis by Machiavelli after everybody said “gosh darn why didn’t I think of that?”

And away they went. And because it was the preferred political fighting ground of the Right it suited them down to the balance sheet to have progressives always focused on “the economy” and not the hundreds, thousands of other aspects of daily life that the Right don’t have a clue about. While the strengths of progressive politicians were left undiscussed. As time went by this became a self-fulfilling bon mot because progressives were expected to focus on the economy, so only those who were happy to do so, looked the part, and talked the talk, could become political candidates. Game set and match to the corporations and banks. Bravo Mr Carville.

But the ramifications of this ratty little bit of paper with its fortune cookie sentiment went even further. The public began to believe that you only had to utter the phrase “the economy”, and, like a Hogwarts’ spell, demons would be defeated, all put to rights, happy ever after. An answer to a perceived problem which is “the economy” ignores all the other aspects of society and culture that combine to keep the wheels of history turning. Ignores environmental issues, education, health, infrastructure, culture, technology, communication, ethnic relations, population parameters, geography, history itself indeed. To pretend that there is some magic economic lever you can pull and everything comes good is fooling both yourself and the people.

But it has got worse since that golden age when the Clinton-Carville political renaissance was in full bloom, like a hundred flowers. At least then the post-it note’s wisdom for the ages encompassed the whole economy. In more recent times politicians have come to reduce the language of a campaign to three word slogans, and the “policies” to glib single issues. Modern Carvilles I guess pin-up notes saying “It’s the Dummies, Stupid”. Can’t confuse the dumbed-down voters, so politicians wander around, repeating the same mantra endlessly – all will be well if you elect me and I just do this one thing. The one thing might be the removal of a tax, the change in a law, the building of a railroad, the bulldozing of a forest, the cutting of “red tape” (or these days “green tape” or “black tape”), the stopping of immigration, the reduction of minimum wages, fighting terrorism, and so on.

Our very own Tony Abbott, who three word slogans suit just fine because he can’t remember sequences longer than three words (Romney in America the same) has been telling the public, daily for two years that the “Big New Tax” (ie what is actually a price on carbon applicable only to a few hundred big companies) will be removed and the Golden Years of Howard will be restored. Nothing else needed, just keep telling people (ranging from fishermen to antique dealers to coal miners), over and over that the removal of this ‘tax’ will solve all their problems, for ever and ever amen.

Tony Abbott, Opposition Leader and prime minister manque, doesn’t bother explaining to the businesses that, if they do have “problems”, those problems have nothing whatsoever to do with a carbon price. Their businesses are the way they are (for better or worse) because of the exchange rate of the dollar, free trade agreements, global financial crises, lack of funding for education, inadequate infrastructure, the labour market distortion caused by the mining boom, the adequacy of workplace safety regulations, health care for workers, business tax concessions, the wages that potential customers get, the presence of sufficient housing for a workforce, adequate transport and communications, and so on. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a society to support a business.

Similarly the general public, offered, say, a tax cut by a wannabe leader, might want to consider what that wannabe might to do public transport, public schools and hospitals, road maintenance, whether they will ensure the air and water are clean (whether indeed they will help to stop the climate itself changing), whether they will be tempted to take the country to war for some less than adequate reason, whether they will encourage development of the arts, and so on.

It is no good making promises about what you will do about one tiny element of people’s lives. What counts is the entirety of the society in which we all live. And the entirety of the people who ask to lead us.

Ignorance is strength

21

How can every human being on the planet not spend their days being puzzled about pretty much everything?

Every day I ask myself questions like: How does that work? Why did that happen? Who was responsible for that? What was the purpose of that? Where did that come from? Constantly, one or more of the interrogatives – Who? What? Why? Where? When? – applied to the natural, political, built, mechanical, social worlds.

Can never remember a time when I wasn’t curious, puzzled, interested about the world around me. All children are I thought. But it seems many adults lose the curiosity. Seem to settle for a quiet intellectual life in which people they believe are authority figures tell them how things are, the way they are going to be, and they accept the propositions as given.

How else can you explain the willingness of the 99% to vote, in spite of conservative failures over 50 years or more, against their interests and elect neoconservative governments? How else can you explain the lack of action on climate change? How else explain the successful campaigns by rich miners (originally a typo almost had them as rich moners), by alcohol sellers, poker machine makers and clubs, developers, fishermen.

How else too can you explain the following of fundamentalist religions, of fake medical “cures” like homeopathy and naturopathy, of faith healers and “psychics”, of get rich quick schemes, of populist politicians.

And how else explain why we, the people, accept incuriously what the mainstream media tells us, asking no questions so told all lies. No one it seems is puzzled when they are told one thing one day, the opposite thing the next day; or when told about two identical actions by two political leaders, one of which is great the other abhorrent.

No one is puzzled when the ‘reasons’ given for starting a war turn out to be completely spurious; when behaviour said to be perfectly safe turns out disastrous; no one is puzzled that “We’ve always been at war with Eastasia”; no one thinks it odd that “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation”.

Oh yes, quoting Orwell is so 1980s isn’t it? But it seems increasingly that not only are political parties and whole countries using it as a manual for controlling and manipulating the public, but so are the media. Think of just three aspects. Winston Smith’s job involves dealing with “unpersons”, people now deemed politically embarrassing, so he alters records, changes photographs, to ensure that the person has not just disappeared from modern awareness, but from history as well. Then, to fill a gap where the unperson once appeared he invents “Comrade Ogilvy, a fictional party member, who displayed great heroism by leaping into the sea from a helicopter so that the dispatches he was carrying would not fall into enemy hands”.

Finally of course the idea of our tv screens watching us hasn’t happened (although …), but the tabloid press tapping phones, going through rubbish bins, and governments using spy satellites and getting internet records means the sense of privacy, lost in “1984″, is rapidly being lost here.

Inner Party member O’Brien says that in the future “There will be no curiosity”. And he is right. The public it seems now have no curiosity. And therefore the media can create a fictional narrative, an alternative to reality, that people will simply accept as truth. And in that reality they will also accept what conservative political leaders tell them.

So, I hear you ask, what is the answer?

Well, you don’t need me to tell you, the answer is “education” of course, teach kids to question, not rote learn, to be curious … oh, sorry, no, can’t keep that up.

Do you think the Inner Party doesn’t know that? Why else have preschools been privatised, religious and other private schools been massively funded, public schools and teachers constantly attacked, demands always made for more “3 Rs” (plus trade courses) to be taught and none of this “contentious” stuff about climate change or politics, ethics classes attacked and religious ones (with “chaplains”) encouraged, all attempts to encourage thinking slammed as being brain washing by the Left? Why the call for kids to leave school early and get jobs? Why the determined defunding of universities, the encouragement to teach more business courses and less “Arts”, the push for private paying students, the defunding of student unions, the constant attacks on any political involvement by students, the constant attacks on university lecturers for being Left Wing?

The 1960s and 70s gave the Inner Party a big shock. This is what happens when children are taught to think in school and university and they were having no more of that. So they have thrashed the curiosity out of education (with the willing acquiescence of the Labor Party, also not keen to see too much curiosity about its own policies and behaviour).

So no, I don’t have an answer. Anyone for a job in the Ministry of Truth? Plenty available.

A little learning

5

When I was a young fellow, turned 14, the minimum age at which you could leave school, people demanded of my mother that I leave school, get a job, support the family. Fair enough. No one in the family had ever, for financial reasons, stayed at school past that age. And it was what people like us did, Just the way things were. There were the elites who finished school, went to university, became professionals; and there were the not-so-elites who left school early, got an unskilled job or an apprenticeship, became working class. Generation after generation of Australians, same pattern, just as it had been, and remained, the pattern in England on which our education ideas were based.

But my mother refused to listen, with some hardship kept me at school, then to university, and the rest, as they say, was history. I wasn’t alone. Robert Menzies was building high schools, training teachers, instituting scholarships for universities. Later Whitlam added to the process by building universities and making them free to all. My classes at schools in the late 50s early 60s were a mix of students from rich professional families to the poor ones like mine. If you had ability, drive, determination, you were no longer restricted by where you had come from. And we repaid the investment, students in my final high school class went on to be doctors, teachers, scientists, pharmacists, engineers, adding value to Australia.

I was reminded of all this again the other day when a politician called for essentially a return to the 1950s. Tony Abbott said “The other point I want to make is that it’s all very well keeping kids at school past year 10 but they’ve got to be the right kids being kept at school past year 10” he told radio 2UE. A return to elitism in education. A return to poor students dropping out early, rich students going on. To a view of university as being a playground for the elites, not a training ground for all. Nor a place where a well-educated population could be produced. Places of thought, discussion, debate, discovery.

Oh, it hasn’t been ideal since the increase in fee-paying students from overseas, or the dropping of less popular courses and the increase in courses to do with business for example. But the school part of the equation was continuing to ensure some equality of opportunity.

Curious that when we had a system that worked so well, that contributed to the egalitarian ideals of Australia (a dangerous thing perhaps?), that made best use of all the talents and abilities of its young people, we should have someone calling for a return to the bad old days.

Can’t have been well-educated, I guess.

Or doesn’t believe in a fair go, a fair opportunity, for all.

Count me in

12

Australian Census Day has come again (can it really be five years since the last one?). People complain about having to fill in a form, just as they complain about having to vote, but I enjoy it (although given my somewhat unusual history and circumstances some questions make me pause to think). In fact I reckon Census Day could be declared a national holiday, along with a [once fixed] federal election day, celebrations of our democratic processes.

In America there are people who complain about the very existence of a census, based on some strange libertarian idea that even letting people know you exist is an infringement of “freedom”, and here there were some strange mutterings and email campaigns about the implications of the religion question. I never understand what libertarians or religious fundamentalists are saying about any question, and the census is no exception.

The Census people always promote the census as a practical thing – providing data about education, age distribution, health care, economics, business activity, home ownership, population distribution and so on, that governments can act upon. Fair enough, all true, and something that people can accept as a reason for undertaking the terrible burden of spending five minutes filling in a form every 5 years. But I think there are a couple of other more intangible reasons.

One is just the communal aspect of the endeavour. Here we are 22 million Australians, from all walks of life, all parts of the country (isolated outback farms and city units), all ages, conditions, origins, all sitting down equally to record where we are up to in 2011. Our collective efforts, our collective stories, our various circumstances, combine to say “Here we are, we are Australians, the census results providing a fingerprint, a DNA for a country, that is uniquely that of this great southern land. Indeed it is I think a pity that the questions don’t include more about our interests in the Arts, Sport, hobbies, entertainment, and so on, the things that collectively make us even more Australian.

The other reason in fact is a matter for regret. Engaged as I have been intermittently for some time on tracing my family history my search became enormously easier as the British census returns came on line (the result mainly of volunteers, including me, transcribing them for each county). Britain has been conducting the census from 1841 (in a limited way, 1851 is the first really detailed one) every ten years. And having kept all the returns safely locked away for 100 years, so that the privacy of no living person can be invaded, has been steadily releasing them. The returns for 1911 have just become available I think. It is no exaggeration to say that you can’t effectively do family history without this census information, and conversely that it is fascinating to watch your family change through each decade of the nineteenth century (click the “Dream” tab above to read the results of my research). Can’t do it in Australia. Partly because there was no country-wide census until 1911, but also because the individual returns were destroyed. Not until 2006 was there the option of saying you were happy for your return to be kept for 100 years and then released, and only half the population agreed. A great loss to our collective and individual sense of history – count on it.

Having a laugh

2

Barry O’Farrell (Premier of New South Wales) is now under pressure it seems from both the far right (Fred Nile and the Shooters) and the right (federal minister Martin Ferguson). The Shooters and Fishers have already put a stop to protecting marine life (a ten year moratorium not just 5 years as I thought when I wrote about this before) and have begun putting on pressure to see every child in the state armed to the teeth and shooting guns at school. Fred Nile is said to have had a chat with Barry demanding that all teachers in public schools be replaced with chaplains approved by him (Fred), and that there be none of this teaching of “ethics” which apparently is incompatible with religion. Now Martin is demanding that NSW end all resistance and have every part of the state explored for uranium deposits, so Barry is faced with three demands all of which would have toxic legacies for generations to come for the citizens of this proud state.

I am reminded of a comedy sketch I saw years ago, the comedian now forgotten (see comments), in which Walter Raleigh comes back from America having discovered tobacco and is trying to sell its benefits to the British government whose response is incredulous – “And then they do what Walter? They stick this tube of paper full of leaves of a nasty weed into their mouths and then they set fire to it? Right, we’ll give that a miss Walt, thanks for asking.”

Just as well I ‘m not Premier, because I wouldn’t have been able to keep a straight face as these similar propositions were paraded through my office by apparently serious people. “Really, armed schoolchildren learning fundamentalist religion with no ethics whose job prospects are in uranium mining, in a state whose environment is being wrecked? Sorry, that’s a bit of a cough I have developed, my secretary will show you out, don’t call us we’ll call you.” But I am sure Barry, a much nicer and more polite man than me, will have listened to all this nonsense attentively, taken notes without laughing, and politely seen them to the door. Ushered in the next lot of ideologues demanding cattle in high country, the sale of all public assets, an increase in tree clearing, private operators in National Parks, and the destruction of the union movement in the state.

There seems to be a view from some political commentators, far less astute than yours truly, that you have to do deals with all these mad-brained people in order to get through your own agenda, which I had understood to mean catching up on years of neglect by the Labor Party (hampered by its own right wing nutters) of areas such as infrastructure, transport, hospitals, schools. Are these people beating a path to your door really going to block you on these electorally popular moves if you don’t go along with their hare-brained agendas? What if you were to discuss stuff with Labor and the Greens and isolate Mr Nile and friends in their own little world? I reckon you are a smart enough politician to rack up achievements in the next four years without giving the state a terrible case of addiction to crazy ideology with endless harmful effects. Good start with standing firm on ethics.

But do try to keep a straight face.

Never did me any harm

2

The other day I heard the usual glib discussion of “discipline in schools” on some tv channel. About how terrible it was that teachers these days were subject to violence (certainly any violence against teachers is terrible, but as an aside I think there is a convenient forgetting about history here, as is so often the case. “Blackboard Jungle”, after all, was written in 1954, and there must have been many examples of teachers being treated badly in even earlier times) and how we needed to bring back strong discipline which had been lost as a result of “political correctness”.

But this view of “spare the rod and spoil the child”, “bring back the cane”, “they need a damn good thrashing”, “never did me any harm”, and the like are themselves “political correctness”. It is just that they are the politically correct thoughts of the Right, the authoritarian, the shock jock, the populist politician.

Every time “political correctness” is supposedly being attacked, what is happening is that someone of the conservative side of politics is trying to remove some socially or environmentally aware policy and replace it with a neoconservative one.

At various times in the past it has been politically correct to: burn old ladies as witches; kill bulls and bears with dogs for entertainment; have schoolmasters and fathers beat children senseless with sticks, belt, anything they could lay their hands on; hang people for all kinds of small and large crimes in public; invade resource rich countries owned by brown people who didn’t deserve them (oh, sorry, still with us); insult refugees/migrants by calling them names like wog and reffo, or indeed, in the case of Chinese, slaughtering them; keep women barefoot and pregnant and certainly not voting or owning property; smash down huge areas of trees with chain and be rewarded by being made state premier; kill koalas for fur, birds of paradise for feathers; take land away from Aborigines without compensation, kill many of them, refer to the remainder as Abos and boongs, while chuckling over newspaper cartoons whose joke depended on Aboriginal stupidity; have sex with women while drunk with no reference to consent; drive while drunk; have small children working in factories and mines and chimneys; have black people working as slaves; condemn people to nasty deaths for “blasphemy” against whatever the currently popular imaginary figure in the sky was; ensure that the great majority of the workforce worked very long hours in dangerous or damaging conditions for poor wages; see the mentally ill and disabled treated with scorn and contempt, mental asylums as places for public entertainment, “freak shows” in circuses; see single mothers socially and economically destroyed, their children removed, children of poor families shipped to colonies; see old people end lives in workhouses.

OK, that’s enough, you have got the idea. Those and many more similar concepts were the political correctness of their day. Many are still the political correctness of the kind of people who vote for conservatives against their own economic and social interests. When John Howard railed against “political correctness” he was representing the views of people who were outraged that they could no longer do and say some or all of those things, they having been replaced by approaches and ideas more relevant to a 21st century sensibility and knowledge than an 11th century one.

So it isn’t “political correctness” that stops children being beaten senseless in schools or homes, it is a recognition that the old political correctness that thought such behaviour was normal was wrong and extremely damaging. You want to argue a case for bringing back the birch or the hangman, open sexism and racism? Go for it, (if you are not a shock jock, in which case you have already reverted to the politically correct language of 1111), convince the public you are right. But don’t hide behind the political euphemism that the only reason we don’t behave like that is because of political correctness on the Left.

I think when you do make the argument you will find that the public in general don’t want a return to the political correctness of the dark ages. You might also find that if you are genuinely concerned about violence in classroom and playground, and not just playing jolly media games, that a very fertile ground of investigation would be the role of the media itself in influencing the attitudes of children to violence and to other people.

But maybe I am just too politically correct – should have been beaten when I was a child.